The Busy Celluloid World Of Josh Brolin

Five performances in 2007 on the big screen, with a possible Oscar nomination in sight

By Omar P.L. Moore/

November 1, 2007


These days Josh Brolin is a busy man -- and that's an understatement.  During this interview he will mention the businesses that he has, the productions he is looking into, the short films and a play he has written and directed that has been a big success in Los Angeles, and the family he has.  For just over two years Josh Brolin has been married to Diane Lane, the Oscar-nominated actor.  Brolin could join Lane in the same nominees circle next January, just prior to his 40th birthday, which will arrive about two weeks before the 80th Annual Academy Awards.  This year, or even this minute, voting Academy members or movie audiences could select a big screen role of his from a cinematic jukebox with the year "2007" and his name written on it.  Want to watch a Josh Brolin performance on the silver screen this month?  Pick one.  You want an indifferent sheriff?  ("In The Valley Of Elah".)  Want a corrupt New York City cop?  ("American Gangster".)  How about a determined and devoted man who will do whatever it takes, even if that means confronting a relentless serial killer?  ("No Country For Old Men".)  Those latter two performances could easily be nominated for Oscars next January, and both portrayals -- as Special Investigative Unit Detective Trupo in "American Gangster" (opening on November 2 in the U.S. and Canada) and as Llewellyn Moss in "No Country For Old Men" (November 9) -- are attention-getters, to say the least.  Let's also just say that both films are cop-criminal stories that will have moviegoers talking for quite a while after their end credits have run.

Oh yes, and did you notice that Mr. Brolin was in Robert Rodriguez' "Planet Terror" segment of the film "Grindhouse" back in April?  That film's first feature-length story, in which he played Dr. William Brock, was a nostalgic visit to American B-movies and all their pulpy, slimy, exploitative reverence.  Mr. Brolin will remind his questioner that he was also in "The Dead Girl", a film directed by Karen Moncrieff which opened in New York and Los Angeles right at the very end of 2006, but opened across the rest of America in January and February of this year.  "It was a little movie, but a movie that we're all very, very proud of," he adds.   

Josh Brolin is sitting at a table in a suite at a local hotel here on a gray day on the last day of October.  He has warmly greeted his interviewer.  "Do you know Chiwetel Ejiofor?," he asks.  After getting a response in the negative, he says sincerely, "you remind me so much of him."  He then performs an English accent, which breaks his interviewer into a hearty laugh, and makes the actor himself smile knowingly.  "Chiwetel's a really good guy."  (Mr. Ejiofor, with whom Brolin worked in "American Gangster", was born and raised in London to Nigerian parents.)  Easygoing, polite, low-key, calm and conversational, talking to Mr. Brolin (born in Templeton, California to actor James Brolin and Jane Brolin) is akin to having a chat with your good friend and recalling the glory days you shared, with a few laughs.  The actor has a down-to-earth, relaxed demeanor.  There seems not to be a trace of Hollywood in him.  What you see is what you get.

Principally Mr. Brolin is in town to talk about his big screen alter ego Llewellyn Moss in the Miramax/Paramount Vantage film "No Country For Old Men", written and directed by the Coen Brothers (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.)  The film, which also stars Brolin's "Elah" colleague Tommy Lee Jones as Ed Tom Bell, a jaded, laconic West Texas sheriff, is powerful, violent, stunning and near-flawless in its execution -- genuine in both its intentions and delivery.  In it, Moss has violated the cardinal rule: you don't screw around with another man's paycheck, even if it is ill-gotten.  That other man is Javier Bardem, and his character Anton Chigurh means business, and a lot, lot more than just that.  Brolin had some concerns about some of the moments that are created in key scenes in the latest Coen Brothers film, which opens on November 9 in the U.S. and Canada.  "Javier and I had a lot of questions at the beginning.  We didn't want [Moss] to talk to himself a lot," Brolin said.  There is a lot of silence in the film, and Brolin was concerned about several scenes where the screenplay (adapted from the book of the same title by Cormac McCarthy) calls for Moss to talk to himself.  "The big fear was because he doesn't talk a lot.  There's not a lot of dialogue, how to convey ideas other ways, you know?  Through body language, through inhales, exhales, through grunts, through looks, through blinks . . . so we talked a lot about that," said Brolin.  A decision is reached about how to resolve the issue of silence and reaction to a certain scene, which Brolin said results in "my homage to "Sling Blade".  As much as Brolin has seen "No Country For Old Men", which he says is "way too many times now", he declares that no matter what, every time he will hear Ethan Coen in the theater laughing at the precise moment that Brolin goes Billy Bob Thornton on a scene, vocalizing an affirmative.

The affirmative is where Josh Brolin is with Llewellyn Moss, a confident, indefatigable fellow who has a wife (played by Kelly Macdonald, the British actor in "Trainspotting") whom he will do just about anything for.  Moss is always ticking, but rarely says a word.  He just has to get things done.  No matter what it takes.  Brolin credits Mr. McCarthy's book for being a huge help to him in cultivating Moss from a certain cloth.  "I carried the book around and I referenced the book a lot . . . I think I got more from the book, than from anything, that and just the physical situations."  Brolin describes the book (and the adapted screenplay) as "incredible".  He adds that Mr. McCarthy's novel obviously gives the Moss character and the other interesting individuals and Southern townsfolk that drift in and out of the Coen Brothers' new film a lot more weight and back story.  Moss is an anchor to West Texas, but he pursues and is pursued, by several different people and forces -- forces which his own actions have brought about.  Brolin's character is a thinker, but he's also rash.  There are traces of the same deliberation and spontaneity which resemble the traits that the actor himself displays while talking about the film and his character.

Josh Brolin at last month's New York City premiere of "American Gangster", held in Harlem at the Apollo Theater on October 19, 2007.  The photos at the top of this feature story in films that Mr. Brolin appears in are, clockwise from the top, "The Dead Girl", "In The Valley Of Elah", "American Gangster" and "No Country For Old Men".  (Photo directly above courtesy: WireImage)

Consequently it is no surprise to learn that Josh Brolin demands a lot from himself as an actor, and in the sweltering heat of West Texas while filming "No Country" in the early summer of 2006, he said that there were some major challenges.  He recalls a time on the set of the film when he was going for a big moment in a scene, "having to fill each moment without overfilling it, without overcompensating because there was no dialogue."  In between sips of coffee, Brolin explains the tiresome aspects of capturing this particular scene as laughter was erupting off camera from the film's two fraternal chief architects.  "So when you're looking left and right and left for like the umpteenth time, you're like, 'okay, I'm feeling a little hollow right now.'  And I would.  I would get scared, and I'd say to Joel and Ethan, 'don't let me be lazy, don't let me -- because I'm gonna see it, and if I see it, I'm gonna be mad if when I'm watching the movie."  He deliberates for a quick second and quietly adds, "if I see a hollow moment -- unless it's intended to be hollow.  Or exhausted, or whatever it is."  You get the feeling that Brolin wants to say a little more, to elaborate on this thought, but the cup of coffee that he is lifting to drink from at this moment intervenes instead.

Mr. Brolin talks about the Coen Brothers with both adoration and humor.  "A lot of directors aren't -- they watch, but they don't really watch.  But they (the Coens) do.  They act like they don't."

He pauses. 

"They act like they're insane."

Brolin says that on the set Joel Coen and Ethan Coen put on "an affectation", or a certain guise or behavior which may make an actor think that they are disinterested in the proceedings around them.  "But they're really brilliant.  They're brilliant at humanizing everything, even though they can make things absurd with their humor, you know?  They humanize everything.  They understand what that is.  People can identify with it, you know?  It's nice."  For the uninitiated, the Coen Brothers have crafted such memorable films as "Fargo", "Miller's Crossing", "The Big Lebowski" and "O Brother Where Art Thou?" among others, films which were not only critical darlings but have now attained a cult status among film audiences.  Few conversations about the Coens can be conducted without mentioning at least one of these films.  Very soon, "No Country For Old Men" will become part of the same conversation, and Brolin's Moss, among other characters, will also be etched into specific discussions about the film. 

One of those other characters is played by Woody Harrelson, whom Brolin says "is funny."  Harrelson plays Carson Wells, and makes a memorable impression in "No Country".  "I love Woody and I hang out with Woody now," Brolin says with a smile.  As Brolin talks about Mr. Harrelson, you could be forgiven for believing that the two of them have either painted the town red at one point or another, or just enjoyed each other's company in their scene as two very distinct characters on the Coens' film set.  Brolin then proceeds to explain the methodology behind an exchange their characters have in one scene and the contrast in their onscreen personas, citing that there's a "man-child" in one character and a very confident, strutting cowboy in the other character.  Brolin returns to specifically analyze Moss in the context of the scene he has with Wells.  "You want to give him a viscera, you want to give him a foundation . . ."  He then refers to Harrelson again.

"He's just a funny dude," Brolin whispers, as a smile emerges. 

Brolin returns also to talking about the film's directors.  "The thing about working with the Coens is they don't give you compliments at all.  There's never like, "'wow, fantastic!', you know?  There's usually like (Brolin gestures here with a nod and a movement of the hands) -- that -- which I found out later meant, 'excellent, we got what we need, if you need another one let me know, otherwise we can move on.'  But in the beginning I thought it meant, 'you didn't really pull it off, but we can't afford to do another one, so let's move on.  We got used to that after a while.  And then Woody did his scene and he completed his speech and they go 'cut!'  And they go, 'OH MY GOD!  WOW!'  (Brolin gestures for effect at this moment.)  And they went and they gave Woody a big hug and they go, 'that was great!'  And Javier and I are off on the side going, 'what the fuck man!  What is happening?  What is ha -- give us -- throw us a bone here, man!'" 

Then for effect, Brolin adds, "Nothin'!", in a frustrated, slightly theatrical voice.  "Two months we get nothing.  Woody comes in for five days and it's, 'wow!'"

The interviewer is laughing, which gives Brolin the perfect opportunity to further opine on Harrelson's effort.

"It wasn't that good."

Goodness won't be found in another Brolin portrayal unfolding on movie screens this month.  The opportunity to talk briefly about Brolin's corrupt New York City Police Detective Trupo character in Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" arises.  Brolin encountered another challenge, as he said that he literally came off the set at the end of "No Country For Old Men" on a Thursday and arrived on Mr. Scott's film on the following Tuesday, and "was trying to fit all the research into a very condensed amount of time."  Brolin spoke to numerous people for his research of the 1970's New York police underworld, including former New York City detective Bob Lucei, author of All The Centurions.  Mr. Lucei was whom Sidney Lumet's layered, complex 1981 film "Prince Of The City " was based on.  Brolin says that he was feeling immense pressure within himself to model himself after a particular cop from the Big Apple of the Seventies.  "I wasn't finding the hook and I started to get really paranoid because we were just about to start shooting.  I'm running around doing wardrobe fittings and all this kind of stuff and trying to do the research, and then I hooked up with Nick Pileggi [author of the book Wiseguy, the basis of Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning film "GoodFellas".]"  Mr. Pileggi was also an executive producer on "American Gangster". 

Camping things up: Josh Brolin as Dr. William Brock, with Marley Shelton in "Planet Terror", the Robert Rodriguez half of the "Grindhouse" double bill released on April 6, 2007 in the U.S. and Canada.  (Photo: Dimension Films)

As Brolin recalls, Mr. Pileggi was instrumental in helping Brolin find the right person to model Trupo on.  "There was a guy that I went, 'that's the guy.  Now tell me stories about this guy.'"  The research led him to talking to others who knew this particular person, and it was all plain sailing from there.  Brolin recalls one scene in "American Gangster" that he has with Denzel Washington, whom he was both enamored and thrilled to work with.  He reenacts with his interviewer the effusiveness with which he approached the two-time Academy Award winner (who plays Harlem drug kingpin and businessman Frank Lucas in the film), shaking his hand and offering a big smile.  "Denzel, how are you?  I'm a huge fan!"  The actor says, "I was like a little kid, you know?" 

Trupo, Brolin says, is a hybrid of at least two cops.  He says he won't mention the name of one particular cop, "out of respect for his family", though he later offers only his first name.  (The name is changed here for this feature story, to "Mike".)  Brolin recalls the story that the real-life Lucas told him about a huge body guard Lucas had with him back in the 1970's, "a guy -- a huge black guy -- who -- you just wouldn't fuck with him, period," Brolin remembers.  "This guy [Mike] who Trupo was based on, walks up to Frank Lucas and this guy, and says (to the huge guy), 'put out your hand.'"  After getting a "what" response from the large man, Mike repeats his declaration, to which, Brolin says, the large man obeys.  (Brolin is now outstretching the palm of his right hand, palm side down, to replicate the man's obeisance.)  "Mike put out his hand like that.  (Brolin now puts out his second outstretched palm right next to the other.)  [Mike] goes, 'See that?  I'm white.  You're black.  Okay?'  And walked away.  And Frank Lucas told me, this huge dude, he goes, 'I fucking hate that motherfucker, man.  Guy scares the shit out of me.  The guy scares the living shit out of me.  Keep that motherfucker away from me!'  And I thought -- when I heard that story, it was so chilling to me, of a guy willing to go so far on that racist line, to just say, 'I can say anything.  I can do anything.  And you can't do shit about it.  Because I'm a cop and you're nothing.  You're shit to me.'  So that kind of hit me," Brolin says.  "And I thought, 'I hate this guy -- like I would hate this guy -- I don't like that -- but within the character? -- I go, 'that works.'  I'm gonna need that to be able to do it with Denzel.  I'm gonna need somebody that feels that invincible, that feels that overconfident -- I don't know -- that universal?, for Josh to be able to do that with Denzel!"  Brolin laughs here, as if to signal the magnitude of the acting challenge of squaring off against one of his idols.   

Josh Brolin has appeared in 25 films over a 23-year-span, and of all the characters he has played during that time (since his debut in the 1985 film "The Goonies") he finds Llewellyn Moss as the one he thinks could most help him to improve himself as a person in real-life.  "Llewellyn for sure, bar none."  He adds that there are one or two characters he has brought to life on stage that could also qualify in aiding self-improvement in Mr. Brolin's personal life.  He quickly references his role in the comedic film "Flirting With Disaster" as Tony.  "I could tell you things about within that character that I really appreciated and loved.  That I really loved.  But Llewellyn, probably more than anything, because the whole thing (in "No Country For Old Men") is instigated by the love he has for his wife, and the respect that he has for his wife.  And he just wants to create a better existence for her.  And that's what he's motivated by.  It's very simple.  It's cellular and it's simple.  And I love that.  I love that.  I appreciate that kind of integrity and that kind of principle."

Josh Brolin offers a coda of sorts as the conversation winds down, a coda that applies to his Llewellyn Moss and to other characters that he has played.  "It's like, 'never judge a book by its cover.'  Because you have no idea what's going on inside people.  You have no idea how resourceful they may be.  You have no idea how clever they may be."  Brolin says that he likes characters that turn out to be something completely different from what they are perceived to be.  "You know, "Flirting With Disaster", you see this guy (Tony) as like a very typical ATF (Alcohol Tobacco & Fire Arms) agent and he turns out to be bisexual, and he turns out to have an armpit fetish.  He turns out to have tattoos, a nipple ring, you know, and all this stuff.  I love that kind of shit, man.  I love that, because I believe that in life, you know?  You meet people, you know -- 'Oh, that guy's like that.  No he's not.'  I'm sure he's many, many, many, many, many things that you'll never know, because you've already made the judgment."

"No Country For Old Men" opens in movie theaters across North America on November 9.  The film stars Mr. Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones (in a possible Oscar-nominated performance), Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson and Kelly Macdonald.

Hear hear!  The Audio Page of the Interview with Josh Brolin talking to's Omar P.L. Moore

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